Lone Wolf Nakba in Vermont?

A loom at work making a traditional Palestinian keffiyeh in the Hirbawi factory, Hebron, West Bank. Photograph Source: TrickyH – CC BY-SA 4.0

The Saturday after Thanksgiving 2023, three male college students were shot while visiting Burlington, Vermont.  While this is a tragic reminder of the violent nature of US society in and of itself, the fact that all three students were Palestinian changes the conversation around that violence in substantive and fundamental ways.  The young men, all twenty years old, were walking on a residential street near the University of Vermont campus.  They were coming from the home of the uncle of one of the men.  It was around 6:00 PM on a chilly evening.  They were wearing regular street clothes and two of them had keffiyehs wrapped around their necks, presumably to keep warm.  According to news reports, the white male shooter shot the men while they were walking and speaking Arabic among themselves.  Nothing harmful, nothing dangerous.  The young men were just college students in a town filled with college students and a neighborhood where students, faculty and others associated with the university and the nearby Champlain College reside.

Barely six weeks previous, the administration abruptly canceled a talk by Palestinian poet and writer Mohammed El Kurd.  The talk was scheduled for the evening of October 26, 2023.  Despite challenges from some students associated with Hillel—an organization funded by various wealthy Zionists and the Israeli government that went full Zionist in 2014–the sponsoring academic departments at the university rejected the calls for cancellation.  In their rejection, the department spokespeople noted their disagreement with the Israeli claim that anti-Zionism is anti-semitism.  After what one can only assume were some heated discussions in the higher levels of the University of Vermont’s administration, the event was canceled without consulting the departments or the organization that arranged the event—The Will Miller Social Justice Lecture Series. (WMSJLS)

No reason was given for the cancellation.  I don’t believe I am going out on a limb when I suggest that pressure came from various outside Zionist organizations and well-heeled alumni who threatened to remove their support if Mohammed El Kurd was allowed to speak as promised.  While the students supporting Israel, its occupation and its latest military onslaught on Gaza and the West Bank certainly approved of the decision, many other students did not.  They made their opposition known with a protest in both virtual and real space.  The damage was done, however.  Fear of a poet and his words regarding the Israeli occupation and the US’s unquestioning support for that occupation was legitimized.  Despite the peaceful nature of the scheduled event, the fear of an anti-colonial and anti-imperialist truth was more than the powers that be would allow.  In the weeks since then, there have been at least five protests calling for a ceasefire and an end to the occupation and US military aid.  Vermont’s lone congresswoman Becca Balint is on record calling for a permanent ceasefire.  The state’s senators Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch have not done so.  In fact, as is his nature, Sanders has been particularly insistent in his refusal to endorse the permanent ceasefire call.  Instead, he has pleaded for an approach that accepts the bulk of the Zionist narrative coming from Tel Aviv.  Despite Sanders’ stated dismay at the Israeli actions in Gaza and the West Bank, his position comes awfully close to supporting those actions.  The slaughter and displacement of Gazans has led many to call the current actions the second Nakba—a sequel to the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias and terror gangs to establish Israel’s original boundaries.

And now, three more young Palestinian men are wounded, one gravely, in the college town of Burlington, Vermont, USA while they were visiting friends and relatives during the so-called Thanksgiving break.  As UVM Professor Helen Scott, one of the WMSJLS board members, wrote me in an email:

“UVM’s cancellation of Mohammed El-Kurd’s lecture made the climate (at UVM and in Burlington) for Palestinians, Muslims, and Arabs less safe. It sent the message that Palestinians are not welcome here. Silencing dissent and free speech plays into the logic of racism. We can only combat hate crimes by visibly standing up for the rights of groups who are targeted.”

In other words, the cancellation was part of an understanding in the US that gives tacit permission to Zionists so inclined to attack Palestinians and their supporters.  It also provides a similar rationale for those whom certain US politicians together with the US media have whipped into a hateful fear of antiwar and anti-Zionist protesters.

When I first heard the news of the shootings soon after I awoke the Sunday morning following the incident, my immediate reaction was that it qualified as what are known as hate crimes.  I still believe this.  Now that the perpetrator has been arrested, charged with three counts of attempted second-degree murder and arraigned, I expect we will discover the crime to be politically/religiously motivated.  He is currently being held without bail.  Uncles of the two men at the aforementioned news conference stated they believed along with the rest of their families that the shooting was a hate crime.  Both men also stated they believe in the principle of innocent until proven guilty.  Although the motivation of the shooter is not known at this writing, the fact that law enforcement, politicians, the media and at least two US civil rights organizations defending Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans either assume it to be a hate crime or did not instantly rule that possibility out is telling.  Indeed, as the Vermont State’s Attorney Sarah George commented at a Monday news conference in Burlington: “This is a hateful act.”  In other words, even if it doesn’t meet current criterion[1] to charge the alleged shooter with a hate crime, it was an act driven by hate; hate almost certainly informed by political and/or religious beliefs.  These mainstream individuals and organizations understand the nature of Tel Aviv’s deadly antipathy towards those whose land they steal and its poisonous effect on those who support that policy of theft.  They are also aware of how certain pro-Israel religious and cultural groups manipulate their adherents in the name of biblical texts and racist tropes.  Whether the motivation for those who support Israel’s crimes is the goal of a greater Israel or the end of the world and a rapture, it is essential we expose and oppose their designs while we call for a permanent ceasefire, a just peace and a Palestine no longer under occupation.


[1]    In Vermont, a hate crime enhancement must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. For more: https://www.vermontpublic.org/vpr-news/2022-04-22/vermont-prosecutors-rarely-have-secured-hate-crime-convictions-a-recent-legislative-change-might-make-it-easier

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com